Robbers Cave Experiment

Robbers Cave Experiment Definition

The Robbers Cave experiment demonstrated that an attempt to simply bring hostile groups together is not enough to reduce intergroup prejudice. Rather, this experiment confirmed that groups must cooperate and have common goals to truly build peace. Thus, although contact is vital to reducing tensions between groups, interdependence is essential for establishing lasting intergroup harmony. This experiment is a classic in social psychology and is important because it has implications for reducing conflict between real social groups. In addition, this study has implications for a number of prominent social psychological theories, including realistic conflict theory and social identity theory.

Robbers Cave Experiment Background

Robbers Cave ExperimentThe purpose of this study was to create conflict and hostility between groups, and then employ interventions designed to reduce it. Researchers accomplished this goal by sending two groups of adolescent boys to a remote location where both the creation and resolution of intergroup conflict could be manipulated. Twenty-two 11-year-old boys were transported to a summer camp located in Oklahoma’s Robbers Cave State Park (hence the name by which this experiment has come to be known). All the boys were similar on important demographic features, with each exhibiting satisfactory academic performance and coming from stable, middle-class families. In addition, the boys did not know one another and had no idea that they were about to participate in a psychology experiment. Researchers divided the boys into two equal-sized groups that were taken to opposite sides of the camp. These groups were initially unaware of each other’s existence, but this soon changed.

The study took place in three separate stages that were approximately 1 week apart: (1) group formation, (2) intergroup competition, and (3) intergroup cooperation. The purpose of the first stage was to encourage the development of unique ingroup identities among the groups. This occurred as a result of the boys engaging in shared activities (e.g., swimming, hiking) with their own groups, which indeed led to the spontaneous emergence of norms, leaders, and identities. In fact, the groups even chose distinct names for themselves, with one referring to itself as the Rattlers and the other as the Eagles.

In the second stage, the groups were introduced and placed in direct competition with one another. Thus, the boys competed in a series of contests involving activities such as baseball and tug-of-war. The group that won overall was to be awarded a trophy and other prizes, and the losing group was to receive nothing. The result was a vicious rivalry between the groups, with both verbal and physical attacks being commonplace. For instance, the boys engaged in name-calling and taunting, as well as more physical acts of aggression such as stealing the winning group’s prizes and burning each other’s team flags. Clearly, the researchers’ goal of creating intergroup conflict was easily achieved. However, resolving this conflict turned out to be a more difficult task.

In the final stage of the experiment, researchers arranged specific situations designed to reduce the severe hostility between groups. First, the groups were provided with noncompetitive opportunities for increased contact, such as watching movies and sharing meals together. However, these getting-to-know-you opportunities did little to defuse intergroup hostility. In fact, many of these situations resulted in an exchange of verbal insults and, occasionally, food fights.

As an alternative strategy, the groups were placed in situations that required them to cooperate with one another (i.e., the situations involved superordinate goals). For instance, one situation involved a broken-down truck carrying supplies to the camp. Another involved a problem with the camp’s water supply. In both cases, the groups needed to work together because the resources at stake were important to everyone involved. This cooperation resulted in more harmonious relations between groups, as friendships began to develop across group lines. As a telling sign of their newfound harmony, both groups expressed a desire to return home on the same bus.

Robbers Cave Experiment Implications and Importance

The Robbers Cave experiment has had an enormous impact on the field of social psychology. First, this study has implications for the contact hypothesis of prejudice reduction, which, in its simplest form, posits that contact between members of different groups improves how well groups get along. This experiment illustrates how contact alone is not enough to restore intergroup harmony. Even after the competition between the boys ended, the hostility did not disappear during future contact. Competition seemingly became incorporated into the groups’ identities. The hostility did not finally calm down until the context changed and cooperation between groups was required. Thus, beyond mere contact, groups also need to be interdependent and have common goals.

Second, this study validated the claims of realistic conflict theory, which specifies that prejudice and discrimination result when groups are placed in competition for valuable resources. The boys in this experiment clearly demonstrated that competition breeds intergroup hostility. More importantly, however, this study highlights the significance of the social context in the development of prejudice and discrimination. The boys selected to participate in this study were well-adjusted and came from stable, middle-class families. Thus, it is unlikely that individual characteristics such as socioeconomic status and family life were responsible for the observed effects because these factors were held constant. Rather, the context of intergroup relations (i.e., competition) led to the observed conflict and hostility. This suggests that prejudice is largely a product of social situations and that individual pathology is not necessary to produce outgroup hatred. Therefore, the results of this experiment speak to a number of social psychological theories that emphasize the importance of the social context in understanding group prejudice, such as social identity theory and self-categorization theory.


  1. LeVine, R. A., & Campbell, D. T. (1972). Ethnocentrism: Theories of conflict, ethnic attitudes and group behavior. New York: Wiley.
  2. Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1988). The Robbers Cave experiment. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.